• Chemistry In Baseball

    Posted by on January 15th, 2013 · Comments (9)

    Not the please pee in the cup kind…via RedSox.com -

    As Theo Epstein returned home for his annual winter charity event, he did so at a time when he’s trying to build the Chicago Cubs into a perennial contender and his former employers — the Boston Red Sox — are trying to regain their prominence.

    The difference between success and failure in baseball can seem as fine as a piece of dirt that gets stuck under a players’ spike.

    It doesn’t always come down to stats or ability. On many occasions, it comes down to atmosphere and culture.

    In other words, the topic of Epstein’s Hot Stove/Cool Music roundtable on Friday night was certainly timely. This forum was about changing the culture of a baseball team, particularly in the clubhouse.

    This was a night Epstein could reflect on why that worked so well for the Red Sox from 2003-07, and how it was perhaps the undoing of the team in his final year in Boston (2011).

    It was a chance for current Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington to talk about why repairing the clubhouse was a major part of his reconstruction this winter.

    The other panel members included Boston manager John Farrell, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter and Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen. They all had telling anecdotes about how personalities can sometimes impact a team as much as a game-winning home run or a key strikeout with the bases loaded and two outs.

    It might not be as tangible — but it’s there.

    “When you’re trying to define what clubhouse culture is, it’s really difficult to do, but it’s really how 25 men come together for a common cause and hopefully if it’s done right, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts and I think we saw that here for a long time,” Epstein said. “There are different ingredients that are important. I think the manager sets an important tone. The character of the players you select to be in the clubhouse is an important tone. The veteran leadership is fundamental to it.

    “We saw the other side of it — towards the end. Where, just as when things come together in just the right mix, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, you can have the opposite effect when some of those ingredients aren’t in play.

    “There probably wasn’t a month in baseball history that underscored the importance of it more than that [September 2011], unfortunately on the negative side. We probably had a month in October of 2004 which underscored how great it can be when things come together with the right mix.”

    When Epstein took over Boston’s front office prior to the 2003 season, he had a team burdened by recent failures, and the inability to win a World Series for more than eight decades. Boston, with its media and ravenous fan base, can be a tough place to play. The Red Sox at that time needed to lighten the mood.

    “Back in Boston, in 2002, heading into 2003, we realized we had to change the mood, the atmosphere, the culture, and we brought in guys like David Ortiz and Kevin Millar to have a very specific set of characteristics that might impact the way a clubhouse dynamic worked,” Epstein said. “Ultimately we hired Terry Francona to do the same.”

    Cherington, in his former capacity as assistant general manager under Epstein, watched some of that camaraderie erode slowly over time. Sometimes you don’t realize until it’s too late.

    “I don’t think it happens overnight,” Cherington said of chemistry. “It can also go the other way, and it doesn’t go the other way overnight. You start maybe taking some things for granted, you start taking shortcuts in certain areas and all of a sudden you aren’t doing the things you were doing when you were really good. The key is recognizing it, and hopefully recognizing it before it gets to that point so it isn’t an issue. I think you have to have talent and culture together; then you have something pretty special.”

    Of course, not everyone believes that team chemistry is important. And, many feel that the best team chemistry is winning.

    Related, I do believe that baseball is very unique because it is a team game that depends on individual success. The pitcher is on his own at the mound. The batter is by himself at the plate. And, when the ball approaches the fielder, it’s up to him to catch and throw it.

    That said, however, I do believe in clubhouse/dugout culture and atmosphere. And, it’s easy to get your job done when you feel comfortable and part of a team as opposed to feeling alone in a hostile environment. But, that’s me.

    What do you think?

    Comments on Chemistry In Baseball

    1. EHawk
      January 15th, 2013 | 1:24 pm

      I agree baseball lack the team chemistry that most team sports have but I think you missed out on one aspect. The pitcher and catcher chemistry is very important and most any pitcher will tell you that and having a good chemistry with their catcher makes them feel like they aren’t alone out there. But pretty much every where else on the field their isn’t much chemistry needed…maybe between the SS and 2B with double plays a little and OF’s knowing how each other play and each other’s range and fielding tendencies.

    2. MJ Recanati
      January 15th, 2013 | 2:39 pm

      EHawk wrote:

      But pretty much every where else on the field their isn’t much chemistry needed…maybe between the SS and 2B with double plays a little and OF’s knowing how each other play and each other’s range and fielding tendencies.

      I don’t think SS/2B or OF interplay is about chemistry as much as it is simply about familiarity. Chemistry — at least to me — implies a kinship or connection that is deeper than simply being colleagues.

      I agree that pitchers and their catcher need to have that trust develop.

      That being said, I don’t think chemistry is about much more than winning. Fart jokes and funny facial hair and all of that fades away in August when you’re 30 games out of first. True on-field and off-field kinship usually forms around a team is playing winning baseball.

    3. Evan3457
      January 15th, 2013 | 9:11 pm

      I believe it exists, but:

      1) It is credited about 10 times as often and 10 times as more potent than it really is, and

      2) Attempts to build it usually fail, though there have been a few overt successes at it, and

      3) It is very easily disassembled, like a sand castle by a wave, and

      4) It almost never lasts from one season to the next. See New York Giants 2011 and 2012.

      P.S. Scioscia and the Angels have been living off of 2002 for 10 years now.

    4. KPOcala
      January 16th, 2013 | 12:19 am

      I wonder how any of know, for sure? Yes, there are tails of teams that punched their way to winning the WS. But the little stuff, like guys looking to drive the ball the other way, protecting the runner by swinging away, the types of things that hurt players’ income and prestige, who knows? Certainly there is evidence that these types of things are noticed, and some of these guys have parlayed lesser talent into long, profitable careers. But some of this goes unnoticed by even the more ardent fans. I think that some of Torre’s early WS winners had a lot of that type of thing going on…..

    5. MJ Recanati
      January 16th, 2013 | 10:02 am

      KPOcala wrote:

      But the little stuff, like guys looking to drive the ball the other way, protecting the runner by swinging away,

      Fundamental baseball is not related to chemistry. There have been plenty of teams that were well-schooled in situational baseball that nevertheless were deemed to be “lacking chemistry.”

    6. KPOcala
      January 16th, 2013 | 1:09 pm

      @ MJ Recanati: I agree, but players can “miss signs”, etc. if they have a “chip”. See Gary Sheffield, especially with the Brewers…..

    7. MJ Recanati
      January 16th, 2013 | 1:16 pm

      KPOcala wrote:

      I agree, but players can “miss signs”, etc. if they have a “chip”. See Gary Sheffield, especially with the Brewers…

      Gary Sheffield was an unprofessional guy and a malcontent. Despite that, he was supremely talented and more than made up for his “missed signs” and other (alleged) acts of protest.

    8. KPOcala
      January 16th, 2013 | 11:59 pm

      @ MJ Recanati: BTW, they weren’t “alleged”. Sheffield admitted throwing balls into the seats himself. He was pissed because he was moved from his “natural position at SS” to third base. He was also pissed because, he alleged that the Brewers were “messing with his mind” by making the switch. He was the Rogers Hornsby of our generation. Talented, but a couple of horse’s asses…..

    9. Raf
      January 17th, 2013 | 1:05 pm

      @ KPOcala:
      @ MJ Recanati:

      Sheffield later said it wasn’t true.

      http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=12991

      If it happened, it didn’t happen at the ML level.

      MJ Recanati wrote:

      Despite that, he was supremely talented and more than made up for his “missed signs” and other (alleged) acts of protest.

      Like the 2004 season, playing with a hurt shoulder. Of course, true to form, he started running his mouth towards the end of his contract…

      I still wish he had given 1b more of a shot, after all, by that point he was pretty much done as an OF’er. But I can see why he’d be hesitant, going into an option year.

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